BATON ROUGE – Beach vacations are something 22-year-old Cheslyn Simpson looks forward to every summer, but they’re not easy on her family.

“We have a wagon with big wheels on it. We have a tent set up on the beach. We made a recliner chair, so we put her in that. So, depending who’s on the deck, we have to pull her out. She’s light but by the time you get through the sand and everything, it’s a workout,” said Shannon Simpson, Cheslyn’s mom.

Cheslyn was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia, a degenerative neuro-muscular disorder.

During speech therapy at the LSU Speech, Language, Hearing Clinic, her therapists suggested she write an essay, asking for help from engineering students through their Senior Capstone Design program.

"The capstone programs within LSU Engineering are the final proving ground for our soon-to-be graduates. The culmination of their hard work through the curriculum is on display for our faculty/staff, alumni, and industry partners. The support provided to the capstone initiatives allows the students to showcase their talents and skills to the community,” said Dr. Judy Wornat, Dean of the College of Engineering.

“It takes you out of just the technical aspect of what you’re learning, and it puts you into a multi-disciplinary team to turn you in a designer. You use the knowledge that you have, as well as acquiring knowledge you don’t have, in order to complete a project that’s not necessarily in your wheel house,” said Blaize Vansickel, a senior from Livingston Parish majoring in electrical engineering.

Cheslyn’s essay was selected and now a group of engineering seniors are creating a beach accessible wheelchair.

“The goal of the project is to allow her to go on the beach with her family at their annual summer vacations and be able to move freely on her own without the help of anybody else,” Vansickel said.

The students working on the project had never met each other before their assignment.

“It has really challenged me in a way that I didn’t really think a senior design project would,” said Kyle Jordan, a senior mechanical engineering student from Baton Rouge. “Coming up with an idea, then realizing it wasn’t going to work, throwing it away and starting over.”

“I think it mimics real life. As an engineer, you’re not given things you’re going to know, you’ve got to be able to figure it out things you’re asked for and find solutions to problems,” said Vansickel.

The students have worked on the wheelchair since the start of the 2017-2018 academic year. From planning to fundraising, design and execution, the wheelchair will go through a number of tests to make sure it works, especially on sand.

“That’s really one of the big obstacles we’re overcoming in this because it’s not a typical wheelchair,” Vansickel said. “We have to make sure she likes it. It’s as much a customer test as it is a test of the actual product.”

Funding the individual Senior Capstone projects comes from sponsors and donations. Donors interested in helping create Cheslyn’s wheelchair can give through the LSU Foundation or a GoFundMe website.

“We are a self-funded project. We have had donations from other individuals that have helped out a lot. We are still fundraising because we don’t have the total amount that we need,” Vansickel said.

The students hope Cheslyn will be able to use and enjoy the wheelchair. But they hope she won’t be the only one to benefit.

“The biggest take away that I’ve gotten working with somebody who is really unable to do a lot of stuff for themselves is that they really want that and they missed that autonomy of being able to do things on their own without the need and help of others,” Vansickel said.

“I feel like if it does work and it is successful a company could pick it up and mass produce it and it can help a lot more people,” Jordan said.